WHATEVS…

Sierra's online journal

New Beginnings November 13, 2021

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It was a year ago, November 2020, when I walked into his office for the last time. He was at his desk, face trained on the screen before him, eyes red-rimmed. He looked tired. Deflated. Weak. I set the box of files on the chair across from him. The same chair that I’d occupied countless times for countless conversations, both business and personal. “Peace out,” I offered awkwardly, unsure of exactly what to say to convey to him everything I wanted to say in that moment. I valued your mentorship. I looked at you like a father figure, someone to be trusted, someone whose advice I often sought. I’ve been unhappy here for YEARS but always stayed out of loyalty to you, to what you’ve built. I had such respect for you, despite it all. He glanced up briefly and was already turning his attention back to his computer screen before he finished exhaling, “Thank you, Sierra.” I lingered in the doorway for a moment, thinking he might say something more. When he didn’t, I slipped out quietly. Disappointed. Hurt. Angry. Regretful.

Having left his office for the last time, no closure to be had, I walked down the hall to my office. Or rather, the office that until just hours prior had been mine for the past almost 15 years. It was there that I was watched as I cleared out my work area. Watched, as though I was inherently untrustworthy. I had no chance to remove personal documents from my computer, no opportunity to save the contacts I had curated over the years, no ability to send a farewell message to the clients with whom I’d built relationships. I packed my personal items into the box I was provided. I asked permission to take a few items I had acquired from the company, including a book. I remember the conference I had received it at. The author was the keynote speaker and was a delight to speak with during the cocktail hour at the end of the day. The company had paid for the trip and the conference. But that book, those memories, all the experiences…they were all mine.

I left my old office that night with 15 years worth of stress packed into one cardboard box, feeling like my life was over. Why? Because I had believed him all those years. You’d hate corporate life. All those lies he’d told me. Everyone is replaceable. I’d fallen for all of them, hook, line, and sinker. You’ve got it good here. I had believed him because why shouldn’t I? He was there to congratulate me on my engagement in 2005 and hug me at my mom’s wake in 2006. He attended my wedding in 2008 and patted my back encouragingly when I announced my pregnancy in 2012. He’d quelled my anxiety more times than I could count throughout the recession. We’d talked business and life, about past experiences and future goals. He taught me lots. And I believed him.

So when I found myself jobless, without warning, the company having been sold and the new owner having decided to manage it himself, I vowed to give myself a break. Lick my wounds. Consider my next move. And in November 2020, with my daughter’s school fighting to maintain a “hybrid” schedule mid-pandemic, my first move was to regroup. To be fully committed to supporting her distance learning instead of half-assing the oversight of her education between work calls and work emails and various other work things that, in the end, didn’t deserve a modicum of my attention. I did that. And I fought to keep myself here, rather than letting what was left of me just fade away into nothingness. I half-heartedly browsed job openings in the beginning, still hearing echoes in the back of my head of him, convincing me that there was no other job out there for me. I began applying, anyway. Slowly. Just enough to have satisfied the “job hunt” requirements.

And then around late February 2021, things changed ever so slightly. We seemed to have turned a corner in the pandemic, at least locally. School was back to a fuller in-person schedule than we’d seen in a year and despite all those nagging voices in the back of my head that I’d never find a job better suited to me than the one he’d taken from me, I was ready to actually try. And, gosh, did I try. Quietly and without fanfare, I began browsing more seriously. Submitting more resumes. Writing more cover letters. Making more phone calls. And the interview requests began coming in. Sometimes second interviews, thirds, even. Some were over quickly, some lasted all day. Some were in-person, some attended from my living room via video conference. Follow-up emails. Returned voicemails. Thank yous. I was doing everything right. But the offers weren’t coming in.

That went on for months. Me, applying and interviewing and ending every week feeling inadequate and hopeless. Me, keeping it all to myself, lest my husband or anyone else important to me find out what a useless failure I was. Me, reading social media posts from friends and family, griping in general terms about the “lazy” people who weren’t working during the pandemic. How they wished they could “have it easy,” too. I wanted to scream and set the record straight for them. I’m trying! I’m giving every last ounce of what’s left of me, fucking trying. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, why no one wants me. It wasn’t a vacation. It wasn’t fun or relaxing. It was months of the same, day in and day out. Anxiety. Self-doubt. Depression. Feeling dehumanized, constantly being measured and judged by hiring managers and recruiters and bubbly talent acquisition specialists. Having my already tender, raw emotional state being mauled and manhandled by people with rough hands and rougher words. Putting on a braver face than I actually had and pretending like the fact that I’d been searching for months and not found a position was no big deal. Yeah, those ignorant posts from people I love cut especially deep in those months.

And sometime around August 2021, something shifted in me. I felt completely defeated by the job search and was resigned to the fact that I’d never find a new gig. I went through the motions, responding to interview requests. I showed up groomed and appropriately dressed. I said all the right things, having had so much practice answering the questions they all ask. But I didn’t care. I didn’t care if I got the job or didn’t, because I went in expecting that I wouldn’t, anyway. And it was when I stopped caring about if they liked me or not that I began to consider whether or not I liked them. Could I see myself happy here? And somehow, it seemed that interviewers began liking me more. By the end of September, I had a recruiter trying to sell me on a position, written offers from two companies, and was in the final stages of interviews with a third agency. I AM capable and worthy of a new job. People DO see the value I bring to the table. The cobwebs were finally being cleared out, my sense of self-worth returning.

It was a month ago, October 2021, when I walked into my new office for the first time. I had survived the phone screening, the in-person interview with my direct supervisor, and the two subsequent video interviews with other decision-makers. I had signed the offer letter and passed the background check. I was moving on, taking a step toward the new person I’m becoming. My new position is wildly different than my last. It’s a different industry entirely, from general management to human resources. I have different responsibilities. I took a pay cut to be where I am but you know what? I’ll get back to where I was eventually. And in the meantime, I’ve found a new home with this new family who took me in when I was at my absolute lowest. These are the people who are going to help carry me through to the next phase of my life, I’ve told myself. I’m going to be happy here. I know I will be, and not because someone told me I would be. Because I can look around and see that people are genuinely happy to be at work. I’ve read the policies that promote actual things like work/life balance and advancement. I’ve seen the bonuses and raises come through for processing. I’ve attended company-sponsored lunches and an event hosted by The Fun Committee, which I think all companies ought to have. Employees smile and seem appreciated. I feel appreciated. And I’m only just beginning.

Yeah, this is where I’m going to learn and grow and be happy for a long time to come. And for the first time in a long time, I’m learning to believe ME. She is, after all, the only one who deserves to hold my trust. Believe in her.

 

Musings from the Grocery Store August 13, 2021

Photo by Hobi industri on Pexels.com

This isn’t going to end well. I tried to talk myself out of it as I pulled into the parking lot. The engine was still running so the AC would continue to work against the sweltering August heat outside, my mind not yet made up. The list I’d penned earlier was shoved into my purse between my wallet and checkbook. You don’t have the bags. Gah! I’ve gotten really good at remembering to bring them. In the beginning, I’d forget them all the time and then, in what always felt like a parsimonious choice, I’d buy new reusable ones to avoid the bag tax.* Every. Single. Time. So now I’ve got PLENTY of bags. At home. Not with me. Go home, come back when you’re better prepared.

* The bag tax is not a thread of fiction woven in for flair. It’s a real life thing. Connecticut, for a time, was charging a $0.10 tax for every disposable plastic bag used. That cost to businesses was, of course, passed on to their customers. Now, those bags are banned entirely, statewide, and instead stores are charging customers $0.10 per paper bag. Because they can. And for the record, KAREN, just in case there’s one of you reading this, I’ve been using reusable bags since before they were trendy. Certainly long before they were required. But only when I remember to bring them. Alas, debating disposable versus reusable and/or the merits of taxes is not why we’re here today.

I turned off the music and reasoned with myself. I have a list. That IS ‘prepared.’ They’re a retail establishment. Surely they’re equipped to handle customers who forgot their bags at home. I can do this. I cut the engine, donned my facemask**, shouldered my list-bearing purse, and marched toward the grocery store entrance.

** Also a real life thing. One that everyone in 2020 / 2021 knows well. But, just in case I’m rereading this in my golden years, COVID a thing in the distant past, I’ll not wonder if I was about to rob the grocery store. But I digress….

Lingering near the door for a moment, I unloaded my purse into the basket at the front of the cart meant to keep squirmy toddlers contained so they can’t lick random stuff. Shit! Without bags, I can’t take a scanner. The scanner, for anyone whose grocery store doesn’t offer such luxuries, is THE way to go. You scan your card at the machine, the machine spits out a price scanner, and you can scan-and-bag items as you shop so that when you’re done, all you have to do is hand the scanner and your payment to a cashier. Granted, while shopping, you’ve already spent so much time bagging and rebagging and shuffling items around enough times to have checked out the old fashioned way three times over. Still, it gives shoppers an illusion of efficiency and probably cuts down on payroll for the grocery store. But what good would a cart full of unbagged, scanned groceries do me? I teetered for a moment there, right on the edge of caving in and buying yet another handful of reusable ones. Then, No. I’ll just do it oldschool today. Shop for the stuff and check out with a cashier at the end. No biggie.

I wandered into the store at the produce department where my freedom from the scanner was immediately apparent to me. Sweet baby Jesus, I don’t need to print any stickers! See, you’ve got to scan everything before you bag it when using the scanner. Even the stuff that doesn’t have a barcode to be scanned. Which explains the scales throughout the produce department that spit out barcode stickers for the fruits and vegetables you’re weighing. Very handy to scan but sometimes a pain in the buns to have to look up all the produce items to print the correct barcodes. I bought produce with reckless abandon, tossing cukes into the cart without even twisty-tying the (non-banned, totally legal, yet still very plastic and disposable) produce bag. Bananas. Broccoli. A pineapple? No worries. The cashier will look them all up for me.

There was no real option other than walking aisle by aisle because my store recently remodeled. I call it “mine” because it’s the same grocery store I’ve shopped at for over two decades. But in truth, it’s never really mine, is it? Because they keep rearranging the aisles to keep me befuddled, wandering by the same endcaps repeatedly while trying to find where they moved the goddamn spices THIS time. (Pro tip: Do NOT spend any time looking for books or anything to read other than the rags offered at the checkouts. I tried last week, en route to visit someone at the hospital, and came up empty. No crosswords. No word seeks. Not even a Sudoku. The aisle is GONE, I tell you!) So by the time I’d made it to the midway part of the store, my list was midway crossed off and my cart was midway full. I’m not used to that. I’m used to seeing three or four “in-progress” bags of groceries in my cart. The random heap of items that was staring up at me almost made me uneasy. It looked too messy. Too unorganized. Don’t be silly. Groceries have been piled into shopping carts since the dawn of time, or something. It’ll be fiiiiine.

Near the last few aisles, I began to come to terms with the fact that I’d soon have to endure checking out. With an actual cashier. True, I could’ve gone to a self-checkout lane. But no. I’ll zip through there quickly if I could’ve otherwise gone through the ’12 items or fewer’ cash register but not with a full cart. It would only end with me doing something wrong (like resting my purse on the scale, which the register does NOT appreciate), the machine shutting off and blinking the overhead light to alert staff that I need unsolicited assistance, and/or me feeling flustered. I eyed my FULL cart of groceries and recalled the laminated signs the store used to post in the bagging area to remind employees to “strive for five.” Five items per single use bag. The presumed intention behind the policy was so little Granny can lift the bags from her trunk and into her house without straining, I guess. But the actual consequence of the policy was WAY more disposable plastic shopping bags being used than was necessary. Come to think of it, perhaps we should blame the “strive for five” policy for single-handedly creating a need to ban single-use plastic bags. Fuck. Was my store’s “strive for five” policy nothing more than a thinly veiled, venal plan to charge for paper bags?! And how many paper bags will I need for….all this?! Maybe I SHOULD just but more reusable ones.

I lucked out in terms of no lines at the checkout area. As it turns out, shopping on a random Thursday evening immediately following a microburst that left parts of town without power isn’t a popular choice. Which worked in my favor. I unloaded my groceries onto the belt, thankful that I remembered how, and greeted my cashier, each of us smiling, I’m confident, under our facemasks. You can tell by the crinkle at the corners of the eyes. Hers were old enough to be crinkly, like mine. Anyway. My luck didn’t run out there. Not only did I find a cashier without a line…but also she had a bagger stationed at her checkout! The bagger’s eyes were not old enough to be crinkly but he was unmasked and I can report with authority that he didn’t smile once. God, am I really that old? That this kid looks like, well, a kid?

Baggers are elusive beings in our store. (It’s “ours” at this point because I’ve had the whole shopping trip to get peeved about them “striving for five” and constantly rearranging aisles. Like, it’s still my store. But also, I’m not willing to take full and complete ownership of it, either.) The bagger drought is what caused me to try the scanner method for the first time, in fact. Because I would routinely find myself trying to unload my cart onto the belt while also bagging my stuff at the other end and trying to expedite payment to avoid that long, awkward stare from the cashier when you don’t manage to finish payment before they’re done scanning your order. Because they always seem to stare awkwardly rather than bag your items for you. Because that’s your job when there’s no bagger. Even if you’ve picked a checkout with a bagger who happens to wander away before it’s your turn. All I have to do is work this debit machine? Good golly, what’ll I do with all the free time I’m going to have?!

“Will you be needing any bags today?” the cashier asked. I hesitated. She could taste the hints of a reusable bag sale, I’m sure of it. “Paper will be fine, thank you,” I replied. I couldn’t see her mouth but I imagine she snarled a bit. Hey! Cut me some slack! I’m at this store every week, sometimes more than once. I ALWAYS have my bags. She scanned items. The bagger bagged items. And I stared awkwardly for a change. I’m queen of the world! When the cashier finished scanning, she began to help the bagger with bagging. “I’m going to put the eggs in this bag. With the bread on top,” she said, making direct eye contact with me, speaking slowly. Got it. It’s been a while, but I think I remember how this bagging process works. “Do you want this in a bag?” the boy asked, lifting up a quart-sized container of drain cleaner. Of course I did. But the way he asked it led me to know that the correct answer was, “Uhm. No? I guess not.” I took it from him and set it in the basket beside my purse. “How about this?” she asked, holding up a container of spring mix. Are they serious right now? I fake-smiled, thankful for the still-crinkly eye corners and the facemask, and took the lettuce from her. I tossed it on top of the bread which, if memory serves, was on top of the eggs. And then? The bagger lifted the watermelon half, wrapped in its slightly moist, very thin layer of plastic wrap, and shrugged. Actually shrugged. We stared awkwardly at each other until finally I tossed my purse over my shoulder to clear space in the basket for the unbagged piece of fruit.

That was the last of it, thankfully. I pushed my cart out of the store, took off my mask, and grumbled to myself about how much I hate that store. (It’s not even “ours” anymore. You can HAVE it!) As I loaded my four overfull paper bags (and six or seven random unbagged items) into my trunk, I reminisced about simpler times when a shopper could stop and shop at a stored called, aptly enough, Stop & Shop without a care in the world. And I dreamed for a brighter future in which I remember my damn bags, can take a scanner, and limit the peopling required of me.

 

The Lowlight July 26, 2021

Sunrise at Wildwood, NJ

Mondays can be tough. This Monday, though, is made tougher by the fact that it’s my first full day back home after a week at the beach. My brain is still in a vacation fog fueled by funnel cake, lack of sleep, and a harrowing drive home that spanned over 5 hours and included a GPS-guided detour off the highway and through New York City for reasons still unknown to me. But I digress.

While away, I did what we all do on vacation. I enjoyed my time with family and tried my best to capture a few images each day that represented the memories we’d made. I’m often bad at that. Remembering to take pictures, that is. I’m even worse at remembering to be IN some of the pictures, too, but that’s a story for another day. This time, I did okay at both. The end result was a nightly post to social media sharing the handful of images from that day. If we’re connected there, you probably saw my posts. Maybe even ‘liked’ or commented on a picture or two. The pictures show happiness. Family. Laughter. Relaxation. Fun. All the highlights of a memorable vacation.

But let’s drop the pretense for a minute here and level with each other. Vacation isn’t all just highlights, is it? There are the moments when no one can pick what they want for dinner or the kids are crying for no good reason. Maybe you’re sunburned. Chafed. Overtired. Perhaps the shoes you packed weren’t the best for walking, after all. Maybe the excursion you wanted was booked or you just ran out of time to do it all. Certainly, there are lowlights of vacation, too, but we never really talk about them. Until right now.

My favorite picture from vacation wasn’t taken by me. It was taken by my husband. Here it is:

Fireworks at the beach

My daughter and I were watching a fireworks display on the beach. It was the end of a long day of fun that included a morning bike ride for her and sleeping in for me. We’d gone on a speedboat dolphin tour with a group of family and friends, spent some time poolside, done some souvenir shopping on the boardwalk, and were about to head back to our hotel with a variety of fried sweets to share before bed. When I look at this picture, I take the overly critical stance that I always do. I see that my hair is messy and windblown. I see the flab at the back of my arm and my hunched posture. I wish I looked more motherly, maybe angled toward my daughter rather than away from her. Maybe with an arm around her. But you know what else I see here? Strength.

Since this isn’t social media and I don’t have to stick to just the highlights of my vacation, I’ll admit that had this picture been taken from the front, you’d see that I had a tear-stained face. Because when you’re like me and struggle with bouts of anxiety, you try hard to leave it at home but it finds its way into your suitcase every time. And mine followed me onto the boardwalk that night.

About 90 minutes before this picture was taken, I was browsing shops for trinkets to bring home to loved ones. The three of us—my husband, my daughter, and me—were happily walking together, chatting about what we hoped to buy. We were excited about the fireworks display that would be happening soon and were plotting what we’d grab for a sweet treat before heading back to our hotel for the night. As we shopped, the crowds thickened in proportion to my patience thinning. I grew uncomfortable. Cranky. Anxious. I told my husband that I was going to walk along the shore to have some quiet time and that I’d meet up with them for fireworks a little later. I encouraged him to continue on shopping with our girl and skipped down the wooden steps to the sand.

About 60 minutes before this picture was taken, I slipped off my flip flops and marched, barefoot, across the beach to the water. The sun was already down. It was a full moon, hovering large and pink on the horizon. I walked toward it until I felt the water at my toes. And then, I began walking along the shore, feet sinking slightly into the packed sand, waves lapping up the footprints in my wake. I breathed, deeply. I listened to the water. I watched in semi-darkness as birds alighted at the very edge of the water to drink before flying off. I cried.

About 45 minutes before this picture was taken, I paused my walk to face the ocean and the moon. I sat in silence for a few minutes and let the tears flow. I thought about life and love, childhood and aging, hopes and insecurities. I thought about my relationships. I thought about the work I’ve put into myself, my mental health, over the past year and a half. I talked to my mom, needing so badly to feel her spirit just then.

About 30 minutes before this picture was taken, I had made my way from the shore back to the boardwalk and found a bench overlooking the beach. I texted my husband to let him know where he could find me. I struggled with negative thoughts; I had let my anxiety win by pulling me away and ruining family time. I cried some more. I texted a couple of friends who I turn to in moments like these. I breathed and trained my eyes on that moon, trying to rein in my emotions. Trying to fight the urge to escape to the safety of my hotel room waiting just one block away.

About 15 minutes before this picture was taken, my husband and daughter hopped off the tram car beside me. He kissed the top of my head and whispered, “We’ll always have your back.” I didn’t try to hide my tears from my daughter, who stood between my knees and asked me why I was crying. Instead, I answered as honestly as I could. I told her I wasn’t sure. I asked her for a hug so she wrapped her arms around my neck and let me rock her. “You know that nervous feeling you sometimes get in your belly?” I asked, knowing that she understands anxiety. She nodded. “I’m feeling that. And it’s making me feel really sad for some reason. I’m just really glad you’re here.” She rubbed my back and held me and eventually sat down behind me.

Moments before this picture was taken, the fireworks display began. The fireworks display that I almost missed out on. She and I sat there, with Chris beside us, and oohed and ahhed as colors exploded in the air. I felt her back against mine. I heard the care and concern in her voice. I felt the safety in having my husband there.

I’m so thankful that my husband thought to snap a picture just then. Had he asked, I’d have declined. I’d have waved him off because I was crying and looked a hot mess. But he didn’t ask. He saw a moment he wanted to remember and he acted. I’d like to pause here to urge you: Take the picture. Even if you’re not looking or feeling your best. Take the picture, too, of your partner. Especially if your kids are with them. Even if it’s not social media worthy and no one ever sees the picture but you and them. Honest moments like these should be celebrated just as much as the posed, happy ones.

The greatest souvenir I could’ve ever taken home from my vacation? A reminder that it’s okay to not be okay.

The moon looked so much bigger and more vibrant in person